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French pronunciation: nasalised vowels

French has a handful of vowels that are nasalised: that is, when you pronounce them, you deliberately let the air escape through the nose as well as the mouth.

In writing, the nasalised vowels are generally represented by one or more vowel letters followed by a letter n (or occasionally m), and where this n is either at the end of a word or followed by another consonant.

There is some variation in the range of nasalised vowels that speakers have, and in how they pronounce them. But the system we describe here is generally a common, standard pronunciation nowadays in France.

Note: in the spellings that we mention below, we mention letter combinations ending in -n. In many cases, the same combination could be spelt with an -m in some circumstances, but we just mention the -n spellings to avoid having to repeat a large number of letter combinations.

The French in vowel

We'll give the name "in vowel" to a vowel that is commonly written in, ain, ein or un. It is generally similar to a French a vowel, but nasalised.

This vowel also occurs in a couple of other letter combinations:

un "a, one"
vin "wine"
tiens! "here you are!"
point "point", "stitch"
matin "morning" — Notice how the first a vowel is not nasalised, but the second in is.

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The French an vowel

What we'll call the French an vowel is commonly written an or en, is pronounced with the mouth in a position for a vowel partway between a and an open o vowel, with the lips unrounded and with the vowel nasalised.

an "year"
grand "big, large"
plan "plan, map"
lent "slow"

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The French on vowel

The on vowel, commonly written on, is pronounced with the mouth in a similar position to the close o vowel, but with the vowel nasalised.

on "we"
ton "your", "tone"
bon "good"
plomb "lead" (the metal) — Notice how the -b isn't pronounced, and the m marks the nasalisation on the vowel.

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A separate un vowel?

Some French speakers actually have an additional nasalised vowel for cases where the spelling has un. For those speakers, un is pronounced as a nasalised open eu vowel. For such speakers, the words in pairs such as un/hein, brun/brin are actually pronounced differently. It is fair to say, however, that this dinstinction is dying out, and younger French speakers generally use the same in vowel for un.

Next: alternations with nasalised vowels

On the next page, we look at a tricky issue that occurs with nasalised vowels in French, which we will call alternations with nasalised vowels. Under some circumstances, the n that normally marks a nasalised vowel actually becomes pronounced, and as part of this process, the vowel often changes.